Canadian Politics (Provincial), Crime, Human Interest, Published Articles

App will tell you all photo radar locations in major Alberta cities

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

A University of Alberta computing science student has developed an app to track photo radar enforcement in major municipalities across the province, including the Hat.

Benjamin Lavin said his app was originally geared toward Edmonton, but in the past few weeks it has expanded to the city’s suburbs and other major cities — Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat.

“It started because I had heard that Edmonton had started releasing its photo radar information online,” he said. “I wanted to set a challenge myself to see if I could take this information and put it into a more usable format for people.”

In the Hat, photo radar locations are also published in the News.

“Once I launched it here in Edmonton I started getting emails from people all over the country asking if I would consider expanding the app into their city.

“I figured that expanding it to the rest of Alberta would be a good first expansion step.”

Developing the app provided Lavin with the opportunity to put his computing science skills into practice.

“It’s all information that the various cities publish online,” he said. “This is really just aggregating all of this information and putting it into a more useful format.”

The app is crowdfunded, meaning it’s free, but users can make voluntary donations.

“I wanted to design it as a public service, so it is a free app for iOS and Android, because I wanted as many people to use it as possible,” said Lavin.

MHPS concerned with distracted driving

Sgt. Clarke White of the MHPS Traffic Unit has no objection to aggregating publicly-available photo radar data, but expressed his concern that an app of this sort could contribute to more distracted driving.

“We’re not trying to hide anything, we’re just trying to use the (photo radar) to slow down motorists, regardless of where it’s sitting. We want the behaviours to change.

“My biggest concern with it would be the added distraction that the device is creating,” said White, adding that reducing distracted driving is one of the traffic unit’s top safety priorities.

“We all know that (when) that device buzzes or dings, it’s going to draw your eyes towards it.”

Crime, Published Articles

Mayerthorpe arsonist sentenced

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Lawson Schalm, the volunteer firefighter who pleaded guilty to four counts of arson in March, was sentenced to two years imprisonment at Mayerthorpe Provincial Court on July 6.

“The offences are indeed grave and concerning for the court,” said Judge Charles Gardner in his sentencing ruling, referring to the 18 fires Schalm started.

The major arson committed by Schalm, 20, was burning down the CN trestle bridge in Mayerthrope on April 26, which Gardner said “caused what can only be described as catastrophic destruction.”

Repairing the bridge cost $7.5 million, Gardner added.

Some of the other fires were small, merely burning grass, while others destroyed property, but the “potential for greater loss … was very great,” he said, noting that one fire was started across the street from a gas plant.

Schalm volunteered as a firefighter from the age of 15. His position as a firefighter created a significant breach of trust that “is not a normal one,” Gardner said.

Other aggravating factors include the number of fires, significant damage, foreseeable risk and that the arsons continued after the trestle fire.

However, Schalm “quickly and forthrightly” confessed to the crimes when he was informed he was a suspect, which Gardner listed as a mitigating factor.

A psychological assessment commissioned by the defence came to the conclusion that Schalm was not a pyromaniac, nor was he bipolar, making the risk of recidivism minimal.

Instead, the psychiatrist said the accused “struggles with self esteem and significant cognitive deficits,” stemming from his upbringing.

Schalm was adopted when he was six years old, coming from a family marked by “neglect and domestic violence,” said Gardner.

He also cited Schalm’s “strong family and community support,” age and lack of a prior criminal record as additional mitigating factors.

“Clearly, a jail sentence is called for,” he said, sentencing Schalm to six months in jail for the first three counts and 18 months for the trestle fire, crediting the accused with three months time served.

Schalm also must pay the Town of Mayerthorpe $8,653.53 in restitution, as well as attend three years probation once his prison sentence is finished.

Gardner also imposed an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, which he said could be altered or lifted by Schalm’s probation officer.

Father, lawyer speak out

Schalm’s father, Albert, a Northern Gateway Public Schools trustee and former Mayerthorpe mayor, said the past year has been an extremely difficult one for his family but that they’re ready to move on.

“There’s always things that happen, there’s always things that go on that we have to live with, have to go with it and my son’s going to pay a price,” said the elder Schalm.

He said his son “has always been a good kid” and that he’s “always been proud” of Lawson, despite his poor decisions last year.

Lawson has been living with his parents and brother since his arrest and Albert said that his recent high school graduation demonstrates his effort at self improvement.

“Huge credit to the high school for allowing him … to finish. Huge credit for him to want to finish,” he said.

Albert described the sentencing as “fair” and “thorough.”

“We didn’t expect a pardon,” he said. “There’s no way that was going to happen.”

Albert also credited the Town for being “very patient” and forgiving.

“That’s how my son has been able to move on for the most part. It’s because people forgive him,” he said.

Edward O’Neil, Lawson’s defence lawyer, said he was similarly satisfied with Gardner’s ruling.

“It was a very humane sentence passed by a very fair-minded and very respected judge,” said O’Neil.

He added that this case was hard on all parties involved.

“It’s a very difficult case because it’s a very sad case. (Lawson) did something he sincerely regrets and comes from a wonderful family,” O’Neil said. “They’re fundamentally decent people.”

Crime, Published Articles

Drug bust, 122 charges laid

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Four people from the Woodlands County area are facing a combined 122 charges after a large drug and gun bust, police announced on March 23.

Whitecourt RCMP and Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) concluded a two-month investigation with their execution of search warrants on March 14 at a Whitecourt home and a Woodlands County rural residence.

Police seized more than $30,000 worth of drugs — 310 grams of cocaine, 77 Percocet pills and 119 methadone pills — as well as three handguns, three shotguns and 16 rifles. They also seized a cocaine press and $8,580 cash from drug deals.

“A bust like this is quite significant for Whitecourt,” said ALERT communications director Mike Tucker. “None of those guns were lawfully possessed and we believe they pose a significant public safety risk.”

Tucker said that the nine days between the raid and its announcement was the result of tying up the investigation’s loose ends.

“There could be elements that are still ongoing,” he said.

According to ALERT’s news release, “in at least three instances firearms were lawfully acquired before being diverted into the hands of suspected criminals.”

The investigation began with a tip about alleged drug trafficking, Tucker said.

“This began with information that was received on this group. We believed that they were trafficking cocaine in the Whitecourt area and some of the surrounding communities. We worked hand-in-hand with detachment there to develop intel and enforcement strategy,” he said.

Tucker declined to disclose how many officers and agents were involved in the investigation.

Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak praised this collaboration between the local RCMP and ALERT.

“This investigation and outcome is a great example of how ALERT works collaboratively with the Whitecourt RCMP Detachment to address serious crime issues. Our community appreciates and values the work that ALERT does throughout the province and in our community to keep our residents safe,” she said in a news release.

The 122 charges are spread amongst four people.

Jeffrey Smith, 30, from Whitecourt faces 29 charges; Clayton Taylor, 23, from Woodlands County faces 45 charges; and Alyssa Leakvold, 25, from Woodlands county faces 45 charges.

Dustin Jennings, 24, of Fort Assiniboine faces an additional three charges for firearms trafficking offences.

They are slated to appear at Whitecourt Provincial Court on March 28.

Crime, Published Articles

Stabbing suspect denied bail

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Dillon Coulson, the man who turned himself into police in relation to a stabbing at a party, was denied bail on March 9 at Mayerthorpe Provincial Court.

Crown prosecutor Trevor Peeters successfully argued that Coulson cannot be trusted to abide by any bail terms, since he, “poses a substantial risk to re-offend.”

“His detention is necessary to maintain confidence in the administration of justice,” he said, noting that Coulson has been previously convicted of assaulting a peace officer, uttering threats and multiple charges of no compliance with the terms of release — seven in the past year alone.

According to the Crown, Mayerthorpe RCMP received a report around 5 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2017, of a man stabbed four times — once in the abdomen, twice in the back and once on his fingers.

“There are multiple third party witnesses who can corroborate that the accused committed the stabbing,” said Peeters.

One witness admitted to driving Coulson from the scene of the crime, he said.

Another witnessed the assault at a house party, providing the knife it was committed with to the police.

According to Peeters, the second witness said the two men had been in a fight, which escalated when the complainant hit the accused in the head with a metal bat.

“His demeanour immediately changed,” the second witness allegedly told the police.

Coulson then allegedly punched the victim and stabbed him.

“I blacked out and completely lost it. If I did it, I don’t regret it,” the accused told police after he turned himself in.

The accused was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, which is a violation of the terms of his probation for a past conviction, the Crown said.

The Town of Mayerthorpe has a serious problem with crime commitment under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he added.

“The community would be outraged if he was given release,” Peeters said.

Defence lawyer Gordon Collins said that Coulson’s actions, rash as they were, resulted from the trauma of being hit in the head with a bat.

“The fight was a wrestling match until the victim picked up a metal bat,” he said, arguing that Coulson’s actions were criminal but not his intentions.

Since he can’t remember the stabbing, it’s irrelevant whether he expressed remorse or not, Collins added.

“If he’s convicted, he’s looking at some serious time,” he said. “No doubt about that.”

Collins asked that Coulson be granted bail under the condition that he live with his parents in Sangudo.

Peeters argued that living with his parents wouldn’t make Coulson anymore likely to abide by the terms of his release.

Judge John Higgerty agreed with Peeters, denying Coulson’s bail due to his extensive criminal record.

“Suffice it to say, 2016 was a very bad year for this man,” said Higgerty, citing his seven breaches of the terms of his release and conviction for uttering threats.

“He’s demonstrated a lack of adherence to the directives of the court,” he said. “I have no confidence whatsoever that he’ll obey the terms of his release.”

Coulson appeared in court via CCTV from the Edmonton Remand Centre.

His trial is scheduled for June 8, which will take the full day.

Book Review, Crime, U.S. Politics

Marc Lamont Hill’s case for intersectionality

Marc Lamont Hill
Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Toronto: Atria Books, 2016
250 pp. $35
9 781501 124945

Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray.

These names, and far too many others, should be instantly recognizable as those of young African-Americans whose lives were taken by law enforcement authorities or vigilantes in the years since the U.S. elected its first black president.

Some were armed and others were not. Some had committed crimes while others hadn’t. Some of their assailants were white and others were black. But they would all likely be with us today had they not been born black and poor.

As Ta Nehisi Coates wrote, addressing his son, in his masterful Between the World and Me,

And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if that destruction is the result of an unfortuante reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy … All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.

Morehouse College political scientist, CNN commentator and VH1 host Marc Lamont Hill takes a somewhat broader approach in his latest work, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond. Yes, the aforementioned individuals were victims of their own blackness in a country plagued by deep-seated prejudice against African-Americans, but there are also cultural, socioeconomic and, of course, political factors at play. They weren’t simply targeted for being black, but because they were “nobody,” to borrow the book’s title.

“To be Nobody is to be vulnerable,” writes Hill at the beginning of the book.

In the most basic sense, all of us are vulnerable; to be human is to be susceptible to misfortune, violence, illness and death. The role of government, however, is to offer forms of protection that enhance our lives and shield our bodies from foreseeable and preventable dangers. Unfortunately, for many citizens – particularly those marked as poor, Black, Brown, immigrant, queer, or trans – State power has only increased their vulnerability, making their lives more rather than less unsafe.

In other words, Hill is making the case for intersectionality. In doing so, he lambasts state violence against the vulnerable, but also examines the factors that got us to where we are now – from the white flight that made Ferguson, Mo., a majority black suburb of St. Louis with a mostly white police force to the austerity measures that lead to the emergency management system that tainted the Flint, Mich., water supply with lead.

The author writes with the eloquence and passion he’s become known for as a public intellectual. Take this fiery speech as an example:


Michael Brown’s corpse was left in the street for four hours because he was Nobody, a member of “a disposable class for which one of the strongest correlates is being Black.” But it wasn’t only his blackness – “his death was only made more certain because he was young, male, urban, poor, and subject to the kinds of legal and social definitions that devalue life and compromise justice.”

Perhaps the most novel aspect of Hill’s book is when he deals with the gendered angle of police brutality, using the death of Sandra Bland as a case study. Bland, who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and ended up committing suicide in her jail cell, was forced out of her car and arrested because the officer didn’t like her attitude. This was a case not only of state-sanctioned racism but of male dominance.

He quotes the black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper, who observed that the officer, Brian Encinia, “expected that she wouldn’t question him. He wanted her submission. Her deference. Her fear.”  But nobody put it better than Bland herself when she told Encinia, as per his car’s dashboard camera, “Don’t it make you feel good, Officer Encinia? You’re a real man now (emphasis Hill’s).”

In jail, Bland’s story becomes a symbol of Hill’s entire argument. After being arrested for being a strong black female who stood up for herself, Bland is unable to pay her bail. Suffering from mental health issues, she takes her own life. This is a powerful indictment of America’s war on the poor, black, female and mentally ill. She lived and died as Nobody.

In the book’s section on mass incarceration, appropriately titled “Caged,” Hill critiques Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. He shares much of her “trenchant analysis,” but objects to her narrow focus on the African-American experience. As Hill writes, “The trend toward incarcerating more African-Americans is matched by the trend toward incarcerating more Latinos, the trend toward incarcerating more women … and the trend toward incarcerating more new immigrants.”

With characteristic wit, he says, “If there is a ‘new Jim Crow,’ it is joined by a new ‘Jane Crow,’ a new ‘Diego Crow,’ and a new ‘Jim Crow Jr.'” True, and this is an important part of Hill’s analysis, but many would see Alexander’s narrow focus as an asset rather than a weakness. In any case, Hill’s work is more of an extension of Alexander’s analysis than a rebuttal.

However, because Hill casts such a wide net, dealing with America’s war on the vulnerable as a whole, his book occasionally seems a bit unfocused. This broad approach is a double-edged sword – it provides valuable context for America’s war on the vulnerable, taking his argument beyond racism, but with that, the reader’s expectations are raised.

Since the vast majority of the examples he draws from concern African-Americans, his argument for intersectionality sometimes comes up short. It would have served his argument to address the plight of Native Americans, for instance.

Still, Hill’s book is undoubtedly worth reading for anyone concerned with the present state of affairs in the U.S. And it’s analysis can easily be applied to the current standoff in North Dakota between the Standing Rock protesters and a militarized police force over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Though it may lack the poetic vigour of Coates or Alexander’s laser-like focus, Hill has nonetheless provided a very valuable addition to the canon of non-fiction regarding the African-American experience in the 21st century.

Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Crime, Published Articles

Hate speech laws face Charter challenge in B.C. court

Jeremy Appel
Originally published at (Canadian Journalists for Free Expression) 

The Ontario Civil Liberties Association (OCLA) is supporting a Charter challenge against the Criminal Code’s restrictions on hate speech brought forward by Arthur Topham, a B.C.-based blogger convicted under these provisions in 2012.

Topham runs a website called Radical Press, which espouses views that have been characterized as anti-Semitic and white supremacist, including Holocaust denial and repeated references to “Zionist Jew lobbyists.” The site also provides links to Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a fabricated tome from Tsarist Russia that alleges a Jewish plot for world domination.

Topham was charged under section 319(2) of the Criminal Code, which prohibits the willful promotion of “hatred against any identifiable group” under threat of imprisonment for up to two years.

OCLA intervenes

OCLA Executive Director Joseph Hickey claims the major problem with this provision is that it concerns “speech that does not have to be proven to have caused physical or psychological harm to any person. The Crown does not have to show there was a victim or someone who suffered any actual harm.”

It’s cause for concern, he continues, when the state wields such extraordinary power without having to provide any evidence of victimization by simply declaring certain phrases and writings as “hate speech.”

The OCLA has called for the repeal of section 319, stating in a press release that it violates both section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—which protects freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression—and a “continuous international consensus that any allowed limit to expression must adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality.”

The latter refers to a 2011 U.N. Human Rights Committee General Comment, which places the onus on the state to demonstrate “in specific and individualized fashion the precise nature of the threat, and the necessity and proportionality of a specific action taken” to mitigate it, in particular by establishing a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat. “Imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty,” and cannot be deemed proportionate or necessary punishment for speech, however distasteful the words may be.

Hickey says the application of the law, as it currently stands, is subject to the whims of the attorney general, who is given the power to prosecute some forms of speech and not others. “There is a political nature to these provisions. When you have a mechanism that allows the attorney general a direct say in whether a prosecution will happen or not, that’s unconstitutional.”

“The OCLA doesn’t take any position about Topham’s views or anybody’s views,” he emphasized. “That’s not the point. The point is to defend and advance freedom of expression.”

Public denunciation through the courts

Anita Bromberg of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation helped bring forward a human rights complaint against Topham in 2007 when she worked for B’nai Brith. The complaint was brought under section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which targeted Radical Press as a publication that promotes “hatred or contempt” based on race or ethnicity.

Section 13 was removed in its entirety in 2013, in a move welcomed by CJFE, by the federal Conservative government, who said it was an overly broad infringement on freedom of expression. The Conservative government later went on to pass Bill C-51 in 2015, which is challenged by civil liberties groups, includingCJFE, on much the same grounds.

Though not a direct complainant against Topham, Bromberg notified the police about his website and testified against him, because, in her view, his site crosses a line from merely expressing his beliefs to demonizing Jews.

“I don’t think you can keep [Topham and others like him] under a rock,” Bromberg said. “The fact is that young people are increasingly being exposed to views that, unless countered, [put them] at risk for indoctrination. The criminal system has always been a way for the public to express its denunciation. That’s [its] purpose—making it clear that certain behaviour is contrary to Canadian principles, good citizenship and life within a civil society.”

But is criminal prosecution the best way to go about to denounce certain forms of speech?

It’s up to “learned judges” to find equilibrium and determine what sorts of behaviour cross the line, Bromberg said. “That’s the nature of the Charter. There’s not always a clear line but we trust our judges to find that balance.”

Topham’s take

Topham has contended that he is the victim of “ongoing harassment, vilification, slander and litigation” by B’nai Brith, the B.C. government and mainstream media.

“What I see when I look into these multi-million dollar [organizations] is GATEKEEPERS in capital letters. And when I say gatekeepers, I mean gatekeepers for the Zionist Jewish lobbyists that now control Canada’s media, academia, judicial system and all the rest of the nation’s infrastructure.”

He has rejected requests for a formal interview on the grounds that this writer is “still caught up in the Marxist matrix and unable to understand or challenge the Zionist ideology and its program of control of Canada’s institutions and judiciary.”

B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton declined comment for this article, “as this matter is still before the courts.”

The challenge began hearings in the B.C. Supreme Court on October 3, 2016.

Crime, Published Articles, Toronto Politics

Carding a blight on multicultural Toronto

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in Humber Et Cetera

Tactics used by Toronto police lag far behind the city’s rich multiculturalism, according to critics, and nowhere is this more evident than with carding – a practice community advocates say amounts to racial profiling.

That was the message Jamil Jivani of the Policing Literacy Initiative brought to Humber Lakeshore campus Wednesday for the latest installment of the President’s Lecture Series.

The lecture, entitled “Bridging the Divide Between Police and the Community,” fell on the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury’s decision not to charge Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.

“Why does a Canadian sitting in Toronto look at what’s happening in Ferguson on CNN and feel like there’s a connection to that?” Jivani asked.

It’s because of the racial biases shared by police in both the U.S. and Canada, said Jivani. Carding is a manifestation of this systemic racism, he continued.

Jivani defines carding as when one is “stopped for no criminal investigation,” but has “personal information recorded by a police officer and then entered into a database.”

After studying police data obtained through a Freedom of Information request, a 2012 Toronto Star  investigative report concluded that black Torontonians are four times more likely to get carded than their white counterparts.

Andray Domise, co-host of the Canadaland Commons political podcast, is a long-time Rexdale resident who’s seen the effects of racial profiling on his community.

“If I am stopped and carded, then the information from that interaction can find its way through some database, which then comes back to haunt me later on,” Domise said. “I’ve spoken to people who that’s actually happened to.

“It used to be that (the police) could repress you physically, but now they can repress you socially,” he said.

Domise emphasized that not all Toronto cops are racist. From his experiences in Rexdale, he noticed many officers making genuine efforts to engage with the community and its leaders.

But these efforts are undermined by TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) officers who are sent from outside to intensively police neighbourhoods perceived as crime ridden.  They have no genuine connections, social or otherwise, with the areas they police.

“They don’t care about working with people. What they care about is getting their arrests (and) their carding information,” he said.

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell also has a lot to say about carding. He founded the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition in 2000 after gaining a reputation as a passionate critic of Toronto police.

“You aren’t engaging with someone who you’re threatening. And that’s what police are doing when they’re carding,” said Sewell.

“If you’re constantly carded by police and treated as if you’re a criminal, you’re going to feel as if you don’t belong in society,” he said. “That’s not a good thing for police to be doing to people.”

The Ontario government recently announced plans to rein in carding, but under the new legislation, police are not required to provide receipts detailing their interaction, nor are they required to dismantle their database of information.